People ask me why I feel comfortable being nude, but I've never thought that showing my body was to be revealing something that intimate—after all, it’s something everyone has. The naked body isn't inherently a sexual body, even though the female body is inherently sexualized within patriarchy—confronting that, in fact, can even work to remove the shame. There's a history of using your nudity to reclaim your body, which for some can work despite experiences of sexual assault, which are disturbingly common among women, femmes and other queer identified folk—myself included. Even sharing that myself becomes an act of removing that inherent shame.
Not that I'm a full-on nudist or hanging out naked with my friends all the time. (I mean, there are occasions.) I have family in Iceland, where there’s a big public bathing culture thanks to an incredible excess of geothermal energy, and things like having to get naked to shower before going into a pool have helped normalized nudity for me—experiences that remind me of my body's grounding functionality, and even universality.
But then puberty is so confusing and awkward, so it hasn't always been that way. I remember that as the first time I really felt my female gender assigned to me by outside forces—something about boobs and the attention they garner. Then, of course, there's the inherent shame that comes with wanting to show off this new body you're growing—a shame that for me came in layers, as I was also discovering my queerness at that time.
It was around then, too, say 13 or 14, that I also did my first work in the fashion industry by randomly modeling for a magazine, which definitely brought along some weird validation. Not that I didn’t have any misgivings about modeling. I immediately saw how ugly certain aspects of it are—it’s all masked in this kind of glamour, but the industry is cutthroat, and the quick-churn schedule is relentless. I interned at a showroom and a few fashion houses when I was in high school and even thought of being a designer before becoming more interested in art, activism, and other ways of connecting to people.
Despite the resentment I feel towards the wastefulness of this industry, I actually think clothing has potential healing properties; we can use it like armor or emotional support, which I do by weaving good luck and intentions into it with secret little alterations. I’ve gotten better about it, but I’ve semi-hoarded clothing before—avoiding washing it or keeping it even after there were holes from moths or fire, just because of the memories.
On a personal level, then, getting dressed can be comforting—I treat it like dressing as a character, day-by-day—but things get tricky when it opens up to the whole industry, which creates these images that we're so obsessed with, but in fact have collateral damage. There’s so much more to what you see in magazines, and you forget about how much time is spent on makeup and hair, how a "natural" look can take an hour, and how many interns and PA's can be found outside of the frame.
Of course, that aspect of image-making goes all the way back to the Virgin Mary and iconography like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, but the truth is that women exist in multiplicity and aren’t limited to these idealized images. When we look at them, we have to remember to look with discerning eyes and think about what these creations have obscured. As the filmmaker and artist Hito Steyerl says, “being invisible can be deadly.”
But the truth is also that we're living in a cis-normative, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, and familiarity sells. The question, then, is how can we exist within the system and find ways to create images that chip away at it? How can we explode something without getting crushed in the rubble? Lately, I’ve been grappling with the discomfort of elevating my own visibility and trying to figure out why I choose to take opportunities that are only accessible to me because of my privileges. I'm trying to learn how to find a balance.
Modeling, for example, has always been a route to financially supporting myself; it was how I achieved financial independence at 18. Even though I knew that came from having the privilege of a certain Euro-centric look, it made it possible for me to afford rent and keep living in New York, where I grew up, not to mention time to work on art projects.
It’s within my power to stop and decide I’m going to disappear and go live off the grid, maybe even be a farmer upstate. But I actually have an immense gratitude for the opportunities I have now, like being able to curate a show at MoMA PS1 this past February, and making the work of others I believe in more visible—the type of thing that goes beyond me or any one person. It’s about trying to live in a way where you can link your personal empowerment to the empowerment of others; we can lift ourselves up through the process of lifting up our peers. So, however you feel about your body, try and be nice to it today.
As told to Stephanie Eckardt.
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